Shrinking space for civil society in pre-election Kyrgyzstan

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With growing tensions between pro-presidential and opposition forces ahead of the autumn 2017 presidential elections, the space for free speech and civil society engagement has continued to shrink in Kyrgyzstan. President Almazbek Atambayev will not be able to run in the elections but is seeking to preserve his legacy. Against this background, he has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism and has spoken out against human rights defenders, journalists and opponents who challenge his policies. Media outlets known for their independent reporting have faced financially crippling lawsuits because of published articles displeasing Atambayev. In addition, social media users posting negative information about the president have faced intimidation from the authorities. Moreover, the authorities’ response to a number of recent protests against the arrest of opposition politicians and the stifling of free speech has caused concern.

The following country update published by the CIVICUS Monitor, an initiative aimed at tracking civic space worldwide has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its Kyrgyzstani partner, the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF). It also draws on information collected from other Kyrgyzstani human rights NGOs and defenders.

Freedom of Association

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor by IPHR and LPF, attitudes towards NGOs have worsened as a result of the debate over the Russia-inspired “foreign agents” draft law, which was ultimately rejected by the Kyrgyzstani parliament in May 2016. Human rights defenders fear that other new initiatives to restrict the activities of NGOs may follow. Such fears have been reinforced by a speech delivered by President Atambayev on 3rd April 2017 during which he stated:

“We must not allow certain figures, who pose as human rights defenders, opposition members or NGOs representatives but in reality ‘work off’ money received from abroad, to impose alien values on people and seek to turn our children into mankurts [meaning people who have lost touch with their roots]. Frankly speaking, it is time to defend our country against such human rights activists. [It is time to] protect the independence of Kyrgyzstan and the future of the people of Kyrgyzstan [as well as to] protect peace and stability in our country”.

President Atambayev and other public figures have previously accused human rights defenders of acting on behalf of foreign donors and undermining national values, cohesion and security. For example, well-known human rights defenders Aziza Abdirasulova and Tolekan Ismailova have been singled out for such discrediting language. Last year President Atambayev publicly suggested that the two defenders are part of a movement bent to topple the government and that they are “working off” their foreign grants to this end. Abdirasulova and Tolekan went to court seeking a retraction of this statement, but have been unsuccessful thus far. In another case, the Bir Duino Human Rights Movement, led by Tolekan Ismailova, filed a lawsuit against the security services in response to a press release issued in January 2017 that accused the organisation of obstructing a law enforcement operation to arrest an individual suspected of extremism. The Movement considers the accusation as a groundless attempt to discredit its legitimate work. The trial began in late April 2017.

Peaceful Assembly

In the last few months, a series of protests have taken place across Kyrgyzstan. Peaceful demonstrations on socioeconomic issues led by rural teachers, vegetable market traders and feminist movement representatives remained largely unnoticed. However, several protests against the high-profile arrests of opposition members and growing threats to freedom of expression (see more in the section on expression below) attracted close attention from the authorities. Unjustified restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and violations of the rights to protest have been documented in the following cases:

–  In late February 2017, the head of the Committee for the Protection of Free Speech notified local authorities that a peaceful assembly would be held in Bishkek on 28th March 2017 to draw attention to violations of freedom of expression and defamation of political opponents. In response to this, the police department in Bishkek’s Leninsky district, where the protest was planned, submitted a petition to court requesting a temporary ban on holding assemblies in this district from 20th March to 8th April 2017. In a decision issued on 17th March 2017, the Leninsky District Court approved this request, referencing public celebrations scheduled to take place in the district during the period in question and the need to safeguard public order and prevent terrorist threats. The court ordered all peaceful assemblies to be relocated to the Ak-kula hippodrome during this period. This court decision was highly problematic. According to Kyrgyzstan’s Law on Assemblies, restrictions on venues may be imposed only when there is a real threat to the safety of participants or other citizens and there must be evidence that such a threat exists. The blanket ban on holding protests in an entire district of the capital for almost three weeks, which the local court imposed, did not meet this requirement and violated international standards.

–  On 18th March 2017, a peaceful march in support of freedom of speech took place in Bishkek. Local authorities had been informed in advance. As the participants were marching along the planned route from Victory Park to the centre of the city, several people were detained by police when they left the sidewalk and walked directly on the street, allegedly violating public order. Among those detained were an MP and a BBC journalist covering the event, both of whom were briefly held before being released. Five youth opposition activists were brought to court the same day and sentenced to five days’ in prison on charges of unlawfully blocking the street, disobeying law enforcement authorities and minor hooliganism, all of which are punishable under the country’s Code on Administrative Offenses. The Khylym Shamy Human Rights NGO, which monitored the assembly, voiced concern that police had immediately detained the participants accused of violating public order without first warning them as required by law. The organisation also noted with concern that the defendants’ lawyers were not allowed to be present at the trial and that the court failed to read out its decisions, which violates international fair trial standards.

Footage from the protest can be seen in the video below:

 
The detained march participants reported being held in inhumane and degrading conditions while serving their five-day sentences. In an interview, one of them described the detention facility where they were held as badly overcrowded, cold, dark, and unsanitary. The country’s Ombudsman subsequently inspected this facility and concluded that conditions there amount to torture. The National Centre for the Prevention of Torture came to the same conclusion.
–  On 25 March 2017, several hundred people gathered in Bishkek to call for the release of former MP and opposition politician, Sadyr Japarov, who was detained at the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border because of a criminal case opened against him. During the protest, some participants tried to break through a police cordon outside the detention facility where Khaparov was being held and hit police officers with sticks and threw bottles. In response, the police forcefully dispersed the protest and detained 105 people, out of which 12 were fined and 64 sentenced for two to five days in prison. Another 12 participants were criminally charged with hooliganism, using force against representatives of the authorities, and deliberately damaging and destroying property. There are concerns that some protesters were detained by individuals in plain clothes with unidentified vehicles, as well as that some protest participants may have been subjected to ill-treatment during detention, with some reportedly requiring emergency medical assistance.
The video footage below shows a group of detained young men with what appear to be injuries sustained as a result of police abuse:

The Ombudsman monitored the legal proceedings against those detained and documented procedural violations, such as the failure to explain to detainees the charges against them and their rights, as well as the failure to grant them access to legal assistance during the trial.

Law enforcement officials also failed to comply with the requirement of the Law on Assemblies to request a court review of the legality of the measures taken to disperse the assembly by force. According to the law, if authorities do not comply with this requirement, the use of force is considered illegal.

Expression

In a statement issued on 11 March 2017, President Atambayev accused “a bunch of supposedly independent journalists, media and politicians” of slandering and discrediting him in the name of freedom of speech and claimed that their true objective is to “destabilize the situation” in the country.

Major independent media outlets have recently faced huge defamation lawsuits due to reporting that displeased the president. These excessive and disproportionate lawsuits threaten freedom of expression and can contribute to a culture of self-censorship.

–  In March 2016, the Kyrgyzstani General Prosecutor filed two defamation lawsuits against the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the independent Zanoza news site. The general prosecutor requested a total of 26 million som (about 350,000 EUR) in compensation for articles that reported accusations against Atambayev as made by arrested MP Omurbek Tekebayev – a former ally of Atambayev who fell out of favour after opposing controversial constitutional changes adopted last year – and those made by his Ata Meken political party. These accusations were also reported by other media that have not been sued. This suggests that Radio Azattyk and Zanoza were selectively targeted. In three additional separate lawsuits initiated in March-April 2017, the General Prosecutor’s Office sued the Zanoza news site, its journalist Naryn Ayp and its founders for more than 20 million som (some 270, 000 EUR) over several other articles allegedly defaming the president. These articles include one critical of the president that was published already in 2015, one about a parliamentary debate about the arrest of Tekebayev and one that reported statements made by former MP and head of the Adilet legal clinic Cholpon Djakupova, who harshly criticized the president’s recent actions against media. Djakupova was also herself sued over this article for 3 million som (some 40, 500 EUR). As a result of court decisions, the bank accounts of Radio Azattyk and Zanoza were frozen and the articles under investigation were blocked on their websites. Atambayev has publicly branded the two media outlets as “slanderers” and said that he is ready to take the defamation case against the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty “to international courts” if needed.

–  President Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party sued the 24.kg news portal, its journalist Tatyana Kudryatseva, and civil society activist Rita Karasartova for defamation, requesting a total of 2 million som (over 25,000 EUR) in compensation because of an article published in February 2017. The article discussed elections at the regional level in Kyrgyzstan and featured a quote by Karasartova, accusing the Social Democratic Party of “selling positions”.

Representatives of Kyrgyzstan’s journalism community, civil society and human rights defenders have criticised the lawsuits against the media outlets as an attempt to intimidate journalists and stifle free speech. A statement by Kyrgyzstan’s Independent Journalist Union called for the withdrawal of the lawsuits, declaring:

“Insensitivity to criticism and inability to dialogue, as well as a discriminatory approach toward inconvenient media are impermissible in a democratic society”.

Ombudsman Kubat Otorbaev also made a similar appeal and urged national courts to issue “lawful and just” decisions in response to the lawsuits.

National legislation requires the general prosecutor to take legal action on behalf of the president in response to information defaming his honour and dignity, but also states that this should only be done when other measures have proven ineffective. In the cases described above, the general prosecutor is not known to have taken any other measures prior to resorting to lawsuits. International institutions have called on Kyrgyzstan to abolish the duty of the General Prosecutor’s Office to protect the honour and dignity of the president, emphasising that it is not consistent with democratic standards that the Office serves as the president’s personal attorney.

Recently reports have also surfaced about efforts by security services to track down and intimidate social media users who have published information critical of the president. In a letter that appeared online at the beginning of 2017, the State Committee for National Security stated that measures had been taken to identify the IP-addresses of 45 Facebook users posting negative information about the president. This was done in response to a request by an MP from the president’s Social Democratic Party. According to media reports, a number of social media users were summoned, questioned and warned by the security services.

In another development of concern, on 26 February 2017 law enforcement authorities detained several journalists covering the arrest of MP Omurbek Tekebayev at Manas International Airport in Bishkek. As noted above, Tekebayev is facing fraud and corruption charges and was arrested when he returned to the country after attending an OSCE meeting in Vienna.

Several media organisations issued a joint statement protesting the detentions of journalists Zaryl Shermamatov and Munarbek Jorgomov from the September TV company, Ulan Egizbayev from the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Murat Soorbekov from the Bia.kg site. Although the journalists introduced themselves and showed their documentation, they were taken to a local police station and held for some time before being released. The joint statement concluded that these actions violated the journalists’ right to carry out their professional activities and called for a thorough investigation into the incident.